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The Boss of Bosses

Richard Naik's picture

Mega Man 2 Bosses

That guy with the earthquake move. The ice thing. The stupid jerkface that won't hold still. Whatever their form, bosses have been a part of gaming since the early days of Atari. Personally I've always been a sucker for boss battles-they can very heavily influence my opinion of a given game. However, based on many games I've spent time with recently, Tim's question from the most recent podcast (mentioned around the 39:00 mark) is a valid one-do they even make good boss battles anymore?

TV Tropes has a great breakdown of a lot of common boss types and trends, although I usually focus more on generalities when evaluating a big baddie. Was I glad normal gameplay stopped so I could take part in this battle? Is the boss something I'm going to remember specifically from this game? Is it challenging or aesthetically pleasing enough to merit its own gameplay segment? Is it even possible to hurt this asshole? Seriously, how the f...oh, right.

To me, a good boss battle can be summed up by varying degrees of three qualities-being memorable, distinct, and challenging. These can be accomplished in numerous ways-a large and intimidating enemy, an opponent with lots of cool attacks, musical and other atmospheric changes, and so forth. The ultimate goal is, or at least should be, to create an experience for the player that represents some sort of high point in gameplay.

Often when I review games I'll find myself composing a mini-review of individual bosses in my head, none of which ever make it into the final article. One or two bosses (usually) don't make enough of a difference to the game as a whole to alter my opinion. So I've tried to come up with some of the bosses I remember the most, both fondly and not so fondly.

Spoiler warning: The rest of this piece will talk specifically about some bosses and how to defeat them, along with links to videos. Consider yourself warned.

Fondly

Metroid Prime (Thardus) - Big, imposing, and nasty, this is a sterling example of a large boss done right. The "whoa" factor is in full effect here, as seeing the pile of rocks come to life is quite satisfying, and the rolling attack is a nice touch too.

Mega Man Zero 2 (Phoenix Magnion) - The Mega Man games almost always seem to get the duel-style battles right, as the robot/maverick masters are superb tests of speedy thinking against a foe that is ostensibly on the same level as the player. I chose Phoenix Magnion here but there tons of others I could choose from. His movements and attacks are unmistakable, and the quickness needed to adapt to him is still fresh in my mind even after all these years. A healthy dose of difficulty helps too.

Valkyria Chronicles (The Batomys) - Featuring a very long, drawn-out fight against a seemingly invincible tank, this takes a lot of thinking to get through. How to damage the main enemy isn't made apparent until about halfway in and even then it requires the player to plan around other events-a joy for a player that likes to micromanage his units (insert sexual innuendo here) such as myself.

Left 4 Dead/Left 4 Dead 2 (The Tank) - The tank is a very unique case, since depending on where it appears in the level it can be anything from a fast-paced close combat affair or a long-distance game of rock throwing. The variety in battle type means there's no video I can show that really does it justice. In addition, the tank offers players the chance to be the boss when playing versus mode, something that alone earns it a special place in bossdom.

Shadow of the Colossus (The whole game) - The entirety of this game is a clinic on how to make battles against large, seemingly insurmountable enemies feel exhilarating. Each one is like a puzzle, with its own special solution not held by any of the others. The link goes to a video of the ninth colossus (Note: the video gives away the solution-again, you've been warned) but I could choose any of them and it would still illustrate the point.

Not so fondly

Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (Morpheel) - This fight actually made me mad. Not because it was hard, but because the goddamn thing barely even fought back. Look, I get that Zelda games aren't exactly known for soul-crushing difficulty, but at least make the freaking bosses actually attack me instead of wandering around aimlessly wondering why a little elf keeps trying to stab them. Uber mega epic ultra fail.

Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (Screaming Mantis) - A pitiful excuse for what should've been a great battle, it's hard for me to put my disappointment with this fight into words. After going to all the trouble of drumming up the nostalgia with the old Psycho Mantis music and the Meryl mind control, the fight ends after one shot with the doll and some shaking. What. The. Crap.

Devil May Cry 4 (The Savior) - An attempt at an epic fight that just winds up being awkward. The arena is very strange, consisting of several suspiciously floating platforms that are connected by conveniently placed jumping pads. There's also no real penalty for falling off, as Dante will somehow just end up back on one of the other platforms. The large amount of time the boss spends between attacks also stands out, as there are often long periods of the Savior just staring at me like I'm some sort of fascinating insect.

Ninja Gaiden II (Genshin/Elizebet) - I single these two out just because they appear back-to-back and it's easy to see not only how they devolve into button mashfests, but how they're really just the same fight in different clothes, or lack thereof. Bosses should have some semblance of individual identity, and these two are pretty much copies of each other outside of physical appearance. I've noticed a systemic problem with boss identity crises in many games I've played lately, such as...

Prince of Persia 2008 (The whole game) - Trying to capture what Shadow of the Colossus did is a noble goal, but this failed to do that in just about every way. Instead of a series of memorable, awe-inspiring battles against unique enemies, I was given sixteen duels against the (almost) same enemy under the same conditions every time. The video just shows one of the fights, but virtually every one of them can be fought and won the same way. Ubisoft deserves some credit here for swinging for the fences and trying to take the franchise in a new direction, but their effort was a dud.   

Now for the ultimate question-has any game ever done it all right? Has any game ever nailed every single aspect of bosses to the tee? I would say that yes, that game does indeed exist. Without any hesitation whatsoever, I can say that the bosses in one certain game were the best I've ever seen. Now before I tell you what game I'm talking about, I'd like you to stop and try to think of your own answer. It doesn't necessarily have to incorporate every single type of boss out there, it just has to have the ones you consider the most memorable as a whole. I'm honestly interested to see how many people have the same answer as me, and how those bosses figure into the quality of the game as a whole.

Take a minute to think before continuing on.

Ok, done? My answer is Kingdom Hearts II. From giants to duels, to weirdos, it does it all and it does it extremely well, showcasing a huge variety of battles that are almost all unique in their implementation. The difficulty spike in the game is problematic at times, but it isn't so bad as to overshadow the game's accomplishments in the field of bossing. If there was ever any game that needed a mode to fight all of the bosses at leisure, it's this.

In the end I think modern gaming still has a lot to offer when it comes to bosses, although there is certainly a fair share of failures and half-hearted efforts. So what say you internet? Have I trampled all over a pleasant memory? Did I omit something that bears mentioning? Or am I just way too damn picky?

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I've only got three words

I've only got three words for your pick of Kingdom Hearts 2:

Dance, water, dance!

I guess while we're on the topic though, I have to say a recent example of a game that I felt did it wrong was Bayonetta. My opinion of the game only increases with each playthrough, but every time I see the bosses again, the more I resent fighting them. They're huge, epic fights...the first time. Then beating on a giant, slow moving statue of some kind or another gets boring. It boils down to the player waiting on the game to allow him or her to attack. The fights against Jeanne were much more dynamic and interesting, because it felt like the game was actually taking notice of the player, and responding to it.

I think Devil May Cry 3 was the only game of its type to get bosses right, in that they realized (outside of a couple exceptions) that a boss with the size and mobility of the player was a much more exhilarating challenge. Agni and Rudra and Vergil can still make my heart race just by watching someone else fight them. The giant bosses of Bayonetta and DMC1 played like a lecture. By contrast, DMC3 was more like a series of extremely stylish arguments.

a good boss fight IMO should

a good boss fight IMO should leave you stoked for more gameplay, and should be a bookend that marks the end of a chapter, and further informs you that the challenge will increase. An unconventional 'boss' I'd use as an example here would be that damn airship that hounds you on the way to the underground base in the first half of Half Life 2. After so much running from it, it's a thrill to stand right out in the open ("C'mon you f***er!") and nail it with a stinger missile. Deep breath. Story section with Alex and Dog, and then you go to Ravenholm, where the play dynamic changes radically. Good times.

Trent Fingland wrote: I've

Trent Fingland wrote:

I've only got three words for your pick of Kingdom Hearts 2:

Dance, water, dance!

Heh. Demyx (the dance water guy) was actually the moment the difficulty spike set in for me. The game went from being really easy to really hard in the span of about 10 minutes.

Trent Fingland wrote:

I think Devil May Cry 3 was the only game of its type to get bosses right, in that they realized (outside of a couple exceptions) that a boss with the size and mobility of the player was a much more exhilarating challenge.

I've only played DMC 1 and 4, but, yeah, those games didn't really have any great bosses. You're also right about the game type-I've yet to see action game in the DMC mold show me a really great boss.

RandomRob wrote:

An unconventional 'boss' I'd use as an example here would be that damn airship that hounds you on the way to the underground base in the first half of Half Life 2. After so much running from it, it's a thrill to stand right out in the open ("C'mon you f***er!") and nail it with a stinger missile.

That's a great one that I didn't think of. Something else that could be considered unconventional would be the horde events in Left 4 Dead/Left 4 Dead 2, especially in 2. No "boss" enemy, but a high point in gameplay all the same. The best example is probably the roller coaster in Dark Carnival.

There was a fairly long section on unconventional bosses that I took out, so thank you for giving me an excuse to mention it :)

I can't describe the

I can't describe the gameplay because I don't remember it, but the last boss for Ghouls N Ghosts (played it for the Master System) left me a impression when I was a kid.

The twist for the last boss of the original Quake. After hours shooting the damn thing, you realize that the answer is quite simple.

All the bosses of No More Heroes. I was expecting that same wackiness in Bayonetta and I'm a little disappointed. I still haven't finish the game, though.

And a special mention to the pure spectacle of the lake monster of RE4.

(I'm guessing this will be posted with the recaptcha code as the name. ckzatwork here.)

Morpheel aside, I thought

Morpheel aside, I thought the bosses were the best thing about Twilight Princess. I particularly liked the spider-man esque fight against the dragon in the second to last dungeon.

And I agree about Kingdom Hearts 2. I remember being pretty thrilled chasing the hyenas through the elephant graveyard. And the final boss was cool - even if I had no idea what the hell I was doing (just mash that X button!)

Circle wrote: Morpheel

Circle wrote:

Morpheel aside, I thought the bosses were the best thing about Twilight Princess. I particularly liked the spider-man esque fight against the dragon in the second to last dungeon.

The only one in Twilight that I liked was Zant-couldn't stand the rest. They were all just big targets with a USE THE THING YOU GOT IN THIS DUNGEON HERE signs hanging on their weak points.

I found the one against the dragon that you mention to be particularly problematic, since (playing the Wii version) a slight movement of the controller would make the auto-targeting to look at the pod behind me instead of the one in front, causing me to swing right back into his fire. That got annoying pretty quick.

The difficulty with

The difficulty with designing good boss battles is that they have to make the player feel threatened. You can only go so far towards this with graphics, visuals, or foreshadowing about the upcoming boss battle - when it comes to it, the player has to feel that there is a risk of losing progress they have made in the game.

The basic model is - lose the big battle at the end, and you have to do the stage over, or at least start at the last save point.

Loss of progress can be internal to the boss battle itself, especially if it's a multi-stage fight. MMOs are a good example of this sort of model - 'we breezed through stage one with no deaths, but then everyone just stood in the fire on stage two.' Or, 'Jaquio's second form in Ninja Gaiden 2 is insane. How am I going to learn it when I still have trouble getting through the stage with enough health to kill his first form?'

Another risk of lost progress comes in terms of the resources you need to use during the battle. In Megaman, obviously, you need to conserve your special weapons and even stop to farm enemies if you don't have enough of weapon that works well on a particular boss. So there's pressure to perform well.

The best example of limited resources I've seen so far has been in the DS Remake of Final Fantasy IV. If you try to play it modern-rpg style, walking through dungeons without excessively farming monsters, the game stays quite challenging. Typically in bad JRPGs that don't spend the effort to balance difficulty, you can just buy more supplies than you will ever use, after finishing the first dungeon. But in this game, stuff is too expensive to stockpile. I found several bosses where I was really put over a barrel by status effects that I couldn't afford to cure, making it a very tense, dynamic experience.

Looking back, the first Lunar had some standout boss battles too, though the threat was usually more about enduring long fights on limited health item supply.

Another interesting idea you'll mostly find in JRPGs is the 'unwinnable boss battle.' The idea is to deflate the player's ego a bit and make them worry that future boss battles might not be winnable either. It can be very effective, but has been done so many times that it's not a sure thing.

Pen and Paper RPG players can understand the point of the too-difficult boss encounter - sometimes the player just needs to be shown that no matter how much their character has developed, they can't just walk all over every encounter; sometimes they need to run, or use stealth, or call in backup, or talk their way through the situation.

Video games are just starting to offer this degree of interactivity in dealing with encounters that are too difficult. Sandbox games typically love the idea of multiple approaches to solving a problem, so they show promise, but generally they don't make the problem itself difficult enough to force the player to be creative. Even when there is a 'creative solution,' it's usually so scripted by the game designer that it doesn't really involve the player thinking, but just going along for the ride.

I think balancing difficulty is key to making a game interesting and immersive, and overall difficulty usually hinges on boss fights. But on the other hand, they're sort of an anachronism - once the 'cutscene' rolls and the 'boss music' plays, there is typically no retreat. I think developers need to get a bit more creative on that front, as 'no retreat' and 'only solution is a silent duel to the death' is honestly not that common a situation in reality.

@KCalder

I agree that sandbox and open-world games seem to have punted on fulfilling the potential of bosses, notwithstanding technical limitations. Shadow of the Colossus is one game that actually did this quite well, but I can't think of any others that have really taken advantage of open-world bosses in this way.

Anyways. well said.

KCalder wrote: - once the

KCalder wrote:

- once the 'cutscene' rolls and the 'boss music' plays, there is typically no retreat. I think developers need to get a bit more creative on that front, as 'no retreat' and 'only solution is a silent duel to the death' is honestly not that common a situation in reality.

Possibly the game designers get into a mindset of 'now you will be tested on what gameplay you've mastered'..? I don't think it's a beloved anachronism as much as something that's probably just grown out of playtesting. Boss battles are choke points where the designers push the envelope of how much player input the system can handle, and get very specific about the factors that make playing difficult.

Yeah, and I totally agree

Yeah, and I totally agree that bosses work great in most games. They only really stand out to me as a weird problem with following traditional game design in games that try hard to convey realism.

Mass Effect, in particular, had a boss that seemed extremely uncanny to me, once the banter of the cut scene was over and the aforementioned duel to the death ensued. I think it was the Krogan Mercenary encounter early in the game. A sort of jarring personhood -> boss-hood transition took place.

Even outside of that sort of game, I still think shaking up the locked room duel model more often would be interesting, if an overwhelming proposition to design. Imagine a challenging opponent that has a parallel agenda on the level of the player's, who might come into conflict with them in different ways throughout the game, depending on what the AI decided would work best.

There've been 'Nemesis' type villains that show up over and over through the course of a game and at least convey an illusion of a persistent enemy. But game environments and gameplay mechanics are so complex now that the idea of an AI making large scale, long-term decisions of when and how to attack the player in something more complicated than an RTS is, for the time being, science fiction.

oooh!

I get where you're going... a real ANTAGONIST. The antagonist is drawn to the same things as the protagonist, but from a different angle. Like Belloq in Raiders of the Lost Ark for ex. - he's not the enemy.. but he does get in the way tenaciously throughout the story... but how to implement that..?

can you really AVOID the locked room duel, without undermining whatever stake you have in what you've completed so far?

RandomRob wrote: can you

RandomRob wrote:

can you really AVOID the locked room duel, without undermining whatever stake you have in what you've completed so far?

The End from MGS3 comes to mind when thinking about bosses that break the locked room scenario, but even in that case the player is still trapped in that section of the jungle until The End is dead.

The only way I can think of to truly break the locked room is to have a boss that pursues the player throughout a given area, and can be defeated at any time. Something like the hovership in the third level of Perfect Dark comes to mind, but I can't think of any others.

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